Proposition 197, although billed as a tool to manage the state's mountain lion population, would open the door to sport killing of the animal, giving hunters a chance to nail a cougar skin to the wall. Passage would be a mistake. A no vote is warranted.
Six years ago, California voters approved Proposition 117, which gave special status to mountain lions. Individual animals can still be killed--more than 100 were shot in each of the last two years--but only after they prey on livestock or in the event of a likely or actual attack on humans.
Backers of Proposition 197 claim the mountain lion population is "exploding." Actually, there is a lack of convincing evidence that the animals' numbers are even increasing. The state Fish and Game Department puts the number of cougars in California at 4,000 to 6,000. As is obvious from the wide range, the statistic is shaky.
Nor are humans in much greater danger of being killed by the big cats. True, in 1994 a Sacramento jogger and a San Diego County hiker were fatally wounded by cougars. But those were the first fatal attacks since 1909. There have been none since.
From 1907 until 1963, cougars had a bounty on their heads. With their number reduced, the Legislature in 1972 instituted a moratorium on sport hunting of the animal. When it expired, the Fish and Game Department tried to allow killing of nearly 200 of the animals by hunters paying $75 for a license, but courts blocked the hunts. Fearful that the department eventually would succeed, proponents of a ban persuaded the voters to enact Proposition 117 in 1990.
It is true that mountain lions are not an endangered species and that they can cause fear and economic loss to ranchers, especially in rural areas of Northern California. But they already can be killed legally when sufficient reason is shown.
Proponents of Proposition 197 say passage would let the state establish a study of the cougar and determine whether there are too many, where they roam and how best to control them for their own protection and that of two-footed Californians. That's a good idea. But it could be done now, without a new proposition.
Opponents of sport hunting argue reasonably when they say the proposed studies would be fine if the proposition promised to bar sport hunting of the animals. But it does not, and the Safari Club and California Rifle and Pistol Assn. are big donors to campaigns for 197.
Proposition 197 is not needed.